I never knew his real name but he said, “Call me Wilson, Master”

WITH THANKS TO LEN SAK AND THE NELSON MANDELA FOUNDATION AND TO THE MEMORY OF ALL THOSE WHOSE LIVES HAVE BEEN BLIGHTED AND SHORTENED BY BEING BORN BLACK

In apartheid South Africa, the story of one man’s suffering and another’s fight to help him out of it.

Our Johannesburg garden was quite small and manageable. The last thing I thought I needed was a gardener. Until a tall, handsome, well-built black man, wearing clothes that you and I would have thrown away, knocked on our door one evening, tattered hat in hand, “Good evening, master. Do you have job for gardener?” And quite suddenly I knew that a gardener was exactly what I needed. I asked him to start immediately, but, I started to explain, only on a part-time basis because …

His face told me everything I needed to know about his disappointment, so I started again. “OK — every day is fine. You can work whatever hours you like, and I don’t care what time you get here. By the way, where are you living?”

“I do not have a place to live, master. I am from Rhodesia. I am just arrived. Maybe you have small shed …?” (This was some years before Rhodesia gained independence from Britain and became Zimbabwe).

“Y-e-e-e-s”, I said, “but it’s just a tool shed for garden stuff and most of the space is taken up by a lawnmower. So …”

“Please, master, that will be good. Do you have a bed?”

“For the shed? No, I don’t. But, hang on, I’m not sure there’s room for a bed, even if we put the lawnmower somewhere else. Let’s go and take a look.”

“Thank you master”.

“By the way — what is your name?”

“I am Wilson, master”.

“No, I mean your real name?

“His face creased into a broad smile. “No, it is too hard to say for you. I am Wilson”.

“OK, Wilson — come with me. Oh, are you thirsty, or hungry? I’m sure you are. Just wait a moment and I’ll get something for you”. A huge smile of thanks. He ate and drank as if he has not done either for a long time. I was to learn, much later, that he hadn’t. For some days.

We walked to the tiny shed, which crouched unobtrusively in the corner of the garden, and I swung the door open.

That smile again. “This will be very good, master”.

At that point, the die was cast, we had a live-in gardener, and I failed to ask him the one question which any employer in apartheid South Africa must ask. But that, too, comes later.

The same day, I went to a second-hand furniture store not far away, and came back with a simple, single, and quite narrow bed, with a thin but serviceable mattress. Back to town, where I bought several blankets, a couple of one-size overalls, and a grab-bag of underwear, toiletries, a couple of towels, t-shirts, a two storage-bags, and anything else I thought that a homeless and goods-less man might need.

The smile broadened even more. His thanks were sincerity itself.

“Right. I’ll leave you to get settled. OK?”

“Master, can I please have some bricks?”

“Bricks? There isn’t room to …”

“No, not for build. For keep away tokoloshe”.

For a moment, I was nonplussed. And then I remembered, from long-ago days when this small boy and his even smaller brothers watched as a black cook-maid-nanny whom we loved beyond any thought of skin-colour, found a pile of old bricks and laboriously placed two or possibly more under each leg of the bed in her little room. Black Africans, I had learned and forgotten, are terrified that the evil spirit called the tokoloshe will climb up the legs of the bed unless they are raised off the floor, and eat them alive.

I found a dozen bricks (another trip to town) and gave them to him. That smile again — and he had his bed on their bricks in no time. Then another problem struck me: How, where would he wash, brush teeth and use the lavatory? Typically South African default position: our house was, surely, white-only? Very quickly, I banished that automatic reaction and made it clear, over his objections, that our second bathroom was his to use.

“No, master, I will use lavatory, but take water with bucket and wash here. Thank you, master”.

“OK, Wilson, but please, will you just call me John, or Mister John. I am not your master. I hate that”.

“Yes, mas… Mister John”.

And so my wife, my just-beyond toddler son and I lived with Wilson and he with us for about a year. Much more than a gardener, general factotum, car-washer (he loved that) and pool cleaner. A very good friend. He almost, but never quite, managed to drop the “master”. Occasional lapses, and my frown of disapproval brought that smile of apology.

Several months later. A hot summer day, as I arrived, bicycle-sweaty, back home from work. My first priority — into that pool. Yes, we had a pool albeit a modest one, but a pool nonetheless in a place where someone was washing in a bucket. Wilson would clean the pool, admire it, fish leaves out of it, but swim in it? No. Not for any reasons of otherness; he was just plain too scared.

Then I thought, as I cooled off, “Wilson. Where’s Wilson? He’s always here to insist on cleaning my already shining bike.”

I asked my wife. No idea. In his shed? No. In a neighbour’s garden where he sometimes did a bit of moonlighting with my blessing? No. I walked to the street, and there I met the neighbour, looking distraught.

“What’s the trouble?”

“It’s Wilson. The Police have picked him up. No pass. Did you know he didn’t have a pass?”

It had never occurred to me, in my stupidity, in my anxiety to help, in my naïveté. I loathed everything to do with the apartheid tyranny that was destroying my country, but I had blanked that, forgetting that part of the machinery of tyranny was the requirement that every black person had to carry a government-issued “pass” in order to live or work legally in a city, anywhere. A form of ID card, an ersatz passport, an inhuman imposition upon the citizens of their own country and those who came to find work, when none was available back home.

“Dammit. I had forgotten. Any idea where he was taken?”

“No, sorry, but try the local police station.”

“Yes, said the heavily-accented Afrikaans voice. We arrested him this morning. He didn’t have no pass (sic). You know about him?”

“Yes, I do. Where is he now, please?”

“Why do you care? He just another kaffir who was walking around without a pass. We send them to Modder. (Modderdam Prison, miles away from where we lived). He’ll be sentenced in the magistrate’s court tomorrow. Or sometime. Heh, heh …”

The nightmare for us all, was just starting. The nightmare for Wilson was well under way. Phone call after call, visits to two more prisons when I realised that he was being moved around seemingly at random, and a week of agonising, bitter regret and guilt, I was told that he has been identified as a Rhodesian, having illegally entered South Africa and was being deported. Tomorrow. In tears, in fury, in ever-growing guilt, I realised that I could do nothing against the forces of legalised racial discrimination, and that all I could do was hope that Wilson would, somehow, get back home and find a life. I had no full name for him, and no address. I was certain that I would never see him again, nor ever come to know anything more about him. The South African authorities had refused to allow me any contact of any kind.

I got on with my life, got back to gardening, pool cleaning, and all the jobs which Wilson had so cheerfully taken off my plate. And part of that life was my latest attempt to take on the flab — a lifelong battle against gaining weight at the mere mention of cake or cookies. A quack doctor (I really was desperate) had put me on a diet so severe and so bizarre that within two months I was a shadow of my former self, having lost a lot of that flab.

Early morning. Very early, just lightening. Pyjama-clad, I answered the doorbell. Wilson. Wilson! Grey-dust covered, thin as a rake, but still wearing the now ragged overall I had bought for him.

I gaped, immobilised by astonishment. Before I had a chance to say or do anything …

“Hau, master, have you been sick …?

I burst into tears, and threw myself into the astonished arms of this man, who looked as though he has been through every kind of hell, and whose first thought was that I looked worse than I thought he did.

Haltingly, his story emerged.

The train back to Rhodesia was the slow version, via Botswana and elsewhere (think going from, say, New York to Buffalo via Philadelphia or London to Glasgow via Cardiff). Wilson and his fellow deportees — about thirty of them — sat tight until the train reached and crossed the Botswana border, where the train driver and other railway personnel were changed, leaving the South African guards behind. Once the train was about fifty kilometres inside Botswana and out of sight from the border, the train stopped in the middle of nowhere. The driver, pleased with his bribe, which had been put together by the deportees, and the solitary guard, equally pleased for the same reason, looked the other way while their passengers jumped from the train, dispersed in all directions … and started on their long journey back to Johannesburg. On foot, re-crossing the border a long way from the railway line. On foot — but barefoot, with their shoes tied around their necks.

Walking by night, hiding by day wherever they could and taking care not to travel in groups of more than two, the returnees lived off the land, eating whatever they could find, drinking from the very occasional pools and streams, and from the even more rare dams, filled by the ubiquitous Climax windmill pumps erected by farmers. The country through which they passed was and still is the bush, the outback, the bad-lands, not far off being semi-desert. Lions, leopards, and hyenas waited for chances to attack. The dry earth crawled with puff-adders, mambas, cobras and scorpions. A bite or a sting meant almost certain death, at worst, or agonising pain and immobilisation at best.

And back into South Africa, roaming border guards and police were on the lookout for them, just itching to arrest them and truck them back to Johannesburg, where, this time, they would be “tried” and sent to prison for long stretches. Finally, and miraculously, some of them made it back to Jo’burg, approaching via one of the black townships which almost ringed the city. Wilson was one of the lucky ones. Lucky, but three-quarters starved, exhausted and covered in the dust of almost 200 kilometres, and almost three weeks of walking. Not only back to Jo’burg, but back to my house. His anti-tokoloshe bed was still in the shed. I had never expected to see Wilson again, but I never had the heart to move that bed and put the lawnmower back. He took up his tiny residence, and where he had left off almost three months ago. And he never uttered “master” ever again.

Now began a bureaucratic nightmare, which lasted months, while I bribed, cajoled, lied, lied some more, filled in endless forms, filled in more forms, told more lies until finally, I was able to bring Wilson out of hiding and present him with a “pass”. No-one could possibly have been happier to have in his hand this demeaning piece of apartheid garbage.

About a year later, I answered the call of my family business and left Johannesburg to take up a position in London. I left in a hurry, because the work in London was time-sensitive, and left my wife to sell the house, organise shipping and do everything that this kind of life-change demands. Small wonder that she divorced me a few years later. And as for Wilson, he found another job close by, but, my wife later told me, left his refuge in tears — his own, my wife’s and my son’s.

Wilson and I are of an age, I believe. Old men now, and while I live in Cornwall in the UK, he is … where? I hope, with my own tears flowing now, that he has had as good a life as he deserved.

And I feel a small flush of feeling good about something I did, and did as well as I could.

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Broadcaster, academic, journalist, columnist, humorist. Show- off contrarian. Seriously centrist politics junkie. British Americanophile.

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Dr John Grierson

Dr John Grierson

Broadcaster, academic, journalist, columnist, humorist. Show- off contrarian. Seriously centrist politics junkie. British Americanophile.

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